As stories of terrorist atrocities on human life as well as cultural sites permeate the hearts and minds of many, I am reminded of how the arts have been used as a weapon during ideological warfare, and why funding the arts with public dollars in the U.S. is just as important as funding our military.
After World War II and during the Cold War, Americans became aware of how fascist and communist governments used the arts as propaganda for control. Governmental censorship of artists and media was viewed by our nation as undemocratic and unjust. Allowing the arts to explore and express the human condition, even if it meant challenging tradition and authority, represented the democratic principles that made our nation so great.
We believed in the power of the arts so much that we created a formal system of public- private partnership to facilitate cultural life by creating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the 1960’s. State arts and humanities councils were also formed to provide decentralized support for artists and arts organizations using matching funds from the NEA as well as private donors.
This public-private funding strategy is rooted in the democratic ideology of our founding fathers. John Adams wrote in the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780 (which became a model for the U.S. Constitution) that funding for the arts, literature, and the sciences was a shared responsibility between public and private institutions.
Put simply, government cannot and should not provide sole support for the arts, but it does have the responsibility to create a foundation that preserves and celebrates our collective histories as Americans and provides fertile ground for artistic enterprise to grow. Due to the culture wars of the early 1990’s (when public funding for the arts came into question due to claims by Congress of controversial art making) and my age, I have never lived in a United States that viewed public funding for the arts as an expression of freedom and democratic power.I have only lived in a United States that questions funding for the arts due to its potential to cause offense or represent values of “big government.” At times when fearful and/or violent viewpoints seem to prevail, it is important to see the arts as a key instrument of a free society, one where the arts are accessible for all to explore the human condition, not just the privileged or the powerful.
Public arts funding in Missouri is currently on unsteady ground. With a now fully depleted Cultural Trust, state legislators must allocate annual monies from the Non-Resident Athletes and Entertainers Tax to the Missouri Arts Council to keep that constitutional promise of shared responsibility for the arts. Citizens will crowd the State Capitol Wednesday for Citizens’ Day for the Arts. I hope you will share your voice by contacting your legislators and tell them that funding the arts is important in maintaining our right to express ourselves freely and openly.